Steven Pasquale and Jeremy Shamos started working on the new Stephen Sondheim musical, Here We Are, seven years ago, while others, like Denis O’Hare, were asked to join the project last summer.
But for everyone now starring in the show, which opened Off-Broadway at The Shed on Oct. 22, joining the project was an immediate yes, largely due to the novelty of being in a new Sondheim piece, which ended up being the composer’s first new show in decades, as well as his last.
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“I know all [his] shows. I know the music. I didn’t even have to read it. I said yes before I read it,” said Bobby Cannavale, who is part of the show’s ensemble cast, which also includes David Hyde Pierce, Micaela Diamond and Rachel Bay Jones.
Here We Are, which features a book by David Ives and direction by Joe Mantello, is based on two surrealist films by Luis Buñuel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel and has been in the works for about a decade. The project underwent many workshops, featuring Pasquale, Shamos and, at one point, Nathan Lane and Bernadette Peters. But, as reported in Vulture, the show hit a roadblock as Sondheim and his collaborators tried to flesh out the final pieces of the score. They ultimately decided to leave much of the second half of the musical without singing, which they said was in keeping with the character’s predicament at that moment.
The show, a dark comedy critiquing the bourgeoisie, follows a group of friends who first arrive at the home of Leo and Marianne Brink, played by Cannavale and Jones, for an unexpected brunch and then journey to different restaurants where they find they can’t eat due to increasingly strange circumstances, including a total lack of food and the death of the chef. The group, which includes a bishop (Pierce), a talent agent (Amber Gray), a plastic surgeon (Shamos) and a Homeland Security officer (Francois Battiste), then goes to the home of their friend, a foreign ambassador played by Pasquale, and, after eating, find that they can’t leave the drawing room.
After the reading with Lane and Peters, Sondheim gave his approval for a commercial production and spoke about his hopes for the show on The Late Show With Colbert in September 2021. Sondheim unfortunately died in November, and the creative team, alongside producers including The Stephen Sondheim Trust, decided to continue moving forward with a production.
While he could not be in the rehearsal room for the Off-Broadway production, Pierce said the cast and creative team were able to use his score as a guide.
“He was so present in the music, and also David Ives’ book, which continued to evolve as we put it together, was so interwoven with Steve’s music and with the feeling of it and with this amazing adaptation we did of these two crazy Buñuel movies, that that’s what we were focused on,” Pierce said. “And I think knowing that Steve had signed off on this idea of the music, essentially the singing anyway, ending where it ended, made it feel like we weren’t trying to create something that wasn’t his.”
Within the show, there’s a moment early in the second act where the piano in the room can no longer be played, after which Pierce says, “Rest in Peace.” This signifies the end of singing in the musical but is also meant as a “gesture of respect” for Sondheim among the cast and those who notice it, Pierce said. Musical director and supervisor Alexander Gemignani and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, a longtime Sondheim collaborator, weave the show’s musical themes as underscoring throughout the rest of the act.
The score, as it is, contains typical Sondheimian wordplay and puzzles, found in lyrics such as “We do expect a little latte later/ But we haven’t got a lotta latte now,” more modern touchpoints, referencing Teslas and infinity pools, and a romantic duet between a young revolutionary, played by Diamond, and a soldier, played by Jin Ha. The significance of singing Sondheim’s last love duet was not lost on Diamond.
“There was not a day that went by that I wasn’t like, ‘I’m the luckiest person alive’” she said.
The cast and creative team began rehearsals for the Off-Broadway run in early August, ahead of a first preview Sept. 28. This time allowed the cast to “find the internal rhythm” of the piece, particularly in the second act, when everyone is trapped in the room, as well as experiment with how to lean into the absurdist nature of the text, Diamond said.
Part of it felt like a normal rehearsal process, but it was also a first for Cannavale, who said he had not been in a musical since high school.
“I’m 53 years old, I had a first experience at my age. It’s very exciting. It was very scary. Every step of it was a bit scary and thrilling at the same time. I’ll probably never have an experience like this again,” he said.
Diamond said she approached the piece with the hope of learning more about Sondheim’s final thoughts on life. After working on the show for several months, she said she’s distilled the overarching message down to: “With enough practice, can we figure out who we are?”
This message is also funneled through her character, a revolutionary working to end capitalism, who then questions her beliefs when the world outside appears to be ending and her wealthy family members are in trouble.
“Part of it is my arc, which is this question of when you really put your words into action, does it hold up?” she said.
In early readings of the show, Pasquale said the composer had been very encouraging of the actors and pushed them to “keep going and go further.” He believes the composer would have enjoyed the final product and its descent into the absurd, saying, “the weirder, the better for him.”
“It’s so sad and also beautiful,” Pasquale said. “The whole reason we did this is because we want to give Steve a victory lap for the most incredible theater career that’s ever been and so hopefully we’ve done that.”
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